Ireland manager Vera Pauw has hailed Denise O’Sullivan as “one of the best players in the world”.
The Cork native recently helped North Carolina Courage to a second successive National Women’s Soccer League title in the United States and was named the club’s MVP for the second year in a row. Also for the second year in a row, the globe-trotting 25-year-old has now moved on loan as a guest player to an Australian club — this time it’s Western Sydney Wanderers, last year it was Canberra United — in order to continue playing competitively during the NWSL off-season.
But it’s as an undeniably classy and increasingly influential playmaker in the green shirt that O’Sullivan has gained prominence in this country, her performances for Ireland one of the keys to the back-to-back home victories against Montenegro and Ukraine which have given the team the perfect start to their Euro 2021 qualifying campaign ahead of next Tuesday’s first away test against Greece.
“Denise is one of the best players in the world,” said Pauw yesterday. “There is no player in the world at this moment that is a playmaker but also the motor in winning the ball back. She has everything.
“There are few players that can create and make a difference. But you need other players to make that happen, to create the circumstance that they can do that.
“She’s extremely important to the team but so are all the others. I don’t say that to give a politically right answer, I really mean that. She wouldn’t have been able to play the way she played against Ukraine without the block of four behind her. Every time things didn’t go well, there was immediate pressure and an opportunity to get the ball back or at least stop the counter-attack. So, yes, she is crucial but so are all the others.”
Unfortunately, Ireland will be without a handful of those players for the trip to Athens, with Megan Campbell (concussion), Megan Connolly (quad) and Courtney Brosnan (thigh) all ruled out through injury. Campbell’s absence also means that Ireland will have to do without a major set-piece weapon – the Man City defender’s celebrated long throw.
“Yes, it is a serious loss, it’s a shame,” Pauw observed. “It’s funny, last night on Dutch TV they showed a guy who could throw so far that they said it’s like a corner kick. But Megan throws it further.”
More controversially, as Pauw revealed yesterday, Ireland will be without Heather Payne and Harriet Scott. Payne’s Florida State University have refused to release her for the game while Scott, who is studying to be a doctor in England, was also unable to get clearance to join up with the Irish squad.
Addressing Payne’s situation in the States, Pauw said: “A college which gives a scholarship for pro football is getting a player because she is in the international team set-up but then stopping her from going to the national team is something that’s very disappointing.
“Everyone knows the Fifa dates but the colleges in the US are not related to Fifa, not under the Fifa umbrella, so they don’t have to release them. It’s very disappointing.”
Pauw went further to suggest that the scholarship programme in America is very far from all it’s cracked up to be.
“You come to the discussion about going to the US on scholarship and whether that’s a good thing for your sports career,” Pauw said. “Because you play only two months. The rest of the year you do not play football, you do some training sessions (and) you’re allowed, if your school is very active, to have a maximum of five friendlies in a year.
“And during those two months you’re overloaded, so you need to play two or three games a week. There’s hardly a pre-season, only two weeks, and then you have to go with constant changing during the game. So it’s just running, fighting, running, running, running, and you don’t learn anything. And that’s the reality of college football.
“You want my personal opinion? I think they promise gold mountains and it doesn’t help your career. I have never seen a player coming back better from college. In my whole career. In any country.”
Pauw said the two players were “very disappointed” to miss out. “They’ve tried everything to get here,” she said. We cannot blame the players at all.”
Assessing the test which will be provided by a Greek side whose only game in the campaign so far — ahead of their match today against Montenegro — saw them beaten 5-0 by runaway leaders Germany, Ireland’s Dutch coach said: “They are a very decent team. They sit quite deep and they have very mobile and quick strikers who co-operate in an extremely good way. So under pressure they are able to create a counter-attack and that is what we need to take care of. But we will really need to make the play.”
Indeed, if the Irish are to claim an automatic qualification spot for the finals in England — and create history by doing so for the first time — Paul believes next Tuesday’s game in Athens is a must-win.
“Yes, the situation is that if we have a draw then we are not out but then you have to play play-offs because realistically we will not get points off Germany,” she said. “We will do everything we can but realistically we will not get points. You cannot count on them.”
Republic of Ireland WNT Squad — goalkeepers: Marie Hourihane (SC Braga), Grace Moloney (Reading), Niamh Reid Burke (Peamount United).
Defenders: Keeva Keena (Celtic), Diane Caldwell (SC Sand), Claire Walsh (Peamount United), Claire O’Riordan (MSV Duisburg), Louise Quinn (Arsenal), Chloe Mustaki (Shelbourne), Eabha O’Mahony (Cork City WFC)
Midfielders: Niamh Fahey (Liverpool), Denise O’Sullivan (North Carolina Courage), Stephanie Roche (CF Florentia), Tyler Toland (Manchester City), Hayley Nolan (University of Hartford), Jessica Ziu (Shelbourne), Jamie Finn (Shelbourne).
Forwards: Rianna Jarrett (Wexford Youths), Leanne Kiernan (West Ham United), Amber Barrett (FC Koln), Katie McCabe (Arsenal), Julie-Ann Russell (Sydney University), Emily Whelan (Shelbourne), Clare Shine (Glasgow City).